Margaret Wright shares her family’s experience as black Catholics in this oral history.
Mariah Mason Lewis was 13 years old when she traveled from Louisiana to Kentucky, up the Mississippi and Ohio rivers.
She was a faithful Catholic and felt fortunate, she later told her great-granddaughter, that a Catholic family in the Bardstown, Ky., area had purchased her. She would be able to practice her faith.
Lewis, who was born in 1847, attended Mass at the Basilica of St. Joseph Proto-Cathedral in Bardstown, Ky., where she — and others who were enslaved by Catholic families — worshipped in the church balcony.
Her first child was born into slavery, but after the Civil War, during which she was widowed, she went on to live in Louisville, marry and have 16 more children.
She, along with many other freed Catholics, made their way to Louisville after the Emancipation Proclamation and eventually congregated at St. Augustine Church. The parish was founded in 1870 expressly for these Catholics at 14th and West Broadway. The present church, built in 1912, is one block east at 13th and West Broadway.
As a faithful and generous member of St. Augustine, Lewis raised her children and grandchildren to be faithful, too.
“She always had a rosary in her hand,” said her great-granddaughter, Margaret Wright. Lewis died at age 104 when Wright was a young woman.
A lifelong member of St. Augustine, Wright shared this story and her memories of Mariah Lewis during an interview Oct. 17.
In October, Wright’s interview was recorded and produced as oral history by Father Patrick Delahanty’s River Birch Productions in partnership with The Record. It is available on The Record’s YouTube channel.
Wright’s story is the first of several such histories that will be recorded for posterity to recognize the enduring faith of black Catholics in the Archdiocese of Louisville.
The series, called Honoring the Gifts of Black Catholics, notes in its credits that the experience of those sharing their stories, “and that of the many others whose words are not part of this series, are unique and irreplaceable.
“Some are descended from slaves whose owners included bishops, other clergy and religious orders,” the video explains. “Their enduring faith is a testimony to the amazing grace that God is, and a gift for all Catholics.”
Margaret Wright’s own faith has remained unshaken during her nearly nine decades of life. She turned 89 in September.
During the hour-plus oral history, Wright shares a variety of recollections related to her family’s history, her professional life as an educator and her experience of church today.
Wright dedicated her life professionally to the education of children and personally to the local church.
She began teaching in 1954, the same year Brown v. Board of Education was decided by the Supreme Court, which ruled that segregation in public schools is unconstitutional.
She was a witness to integration and its challenges. She experienced it firsthand in the 1960s, most dramatically at the newly-built King Elementary, which she said saw its student body shift in one year — from a two-thirds white population in the fall to a two-thirds black population in the spring.
Wright spent 30 years as an educator, half of that in the classroom and the remainder in administration as a principal and director.
She mostly worked in the public school system, but she also served on the Archdiocese of Louisville’s Catholic School Board. She attended Catholic schools for part of her education and her two sons attended Catholic schools.
Faith has been at the center of her family’s life for generations, beginning with its matriarch Mariah Lewis. St. Augustine has been the backdrop.
As an elderly widow, Lewis paid for one of St. Augustine Church’s stained glass windows when the new church was built in 1912, said Wright.
“I don’t know how she could afford it,” she noted. “But I’d guess she prevailed upon her 17 children.”
The windows, which depicted white saints, were removed during renovations in the 1960s.
The intention was to celebrate what was beautiful in the African American culture, said Wright, “but it failed to honor the sacrifices of the people from my great-grandmother’s generation.”
“She always said she was fortunate — if you can call that fortunate — to be bought by a Catholic family in the Bardstown area,” she said. “My great-grandmother talked to me about her faith more than anything.”
Wright noted that growing up during the Great Depression, she didn’t notice the racism rampant outside her small world in the California neighborhood. White people lived on her block and, because they were poor, often came to her house for meals. The kids played together outdoors.
But as she went to school and began a social life in the 1950s, she started to become aware of racism in general and the Jim Crow laws that enforced segregation.
“In the 50s, people began to raise our consciousness,” Wright noted.
She wondered, when she attended a white church, why she had to sit in the back of the church and why black people had to go to Communion last.
She saw barriers to church ministry, too.
“I don’t think we were allowed to make a contribution,” she said. “One of my classmates went off to seminary and came back shortly after because he wasn’t treated well.”
As the sin of racism grew in her consciousness, she said, “You were made to feel it was your fault, rather than being the victim.”
Wright refused both of those labels, she said. “I protested.”
“The Catholic Church was beginning to change and recognize this is a group of people we chose to ignore for hundreds of years.”
While the church has made a great deal of progress, there is still work to do, she said. She believes black Catholics are underrepresented in the church — especially in education and media.
“It gives the impression there are no black Catholics. For many years we have been invisible in the church. Somehow that has to be corrected with a little more vigor,” she said.
Wright noted that after a recent medical procedure, she attended a church closer to her home where parishioners are mostly white. She felt unwelcome. At the residential facility where she lives, one of her fellow residents was surprised to learn she was Catholic, she said, noting he didn’t believe there were African American Catholics.
“I grew up just like any other Catholic. We worship the same, have the same music. I’m just as unfamiliar with shouting (characteristic of some Protestant churches) as any white Catholic,” she added.
And though her family’s faith was incubated in slavery, it endures.
What keeps her Catholic, she said, is what keeps everyone coming back — the Eucharist.
“The church is not the building or the people who run it,” she said. “It’s the Eucharist.”